Renter’s Water Bills

Question

Chayim and his family went abroad to visit their
parents. When they returned, they found that a water pipe had burst in
their apartment. Chayim contacted his landlord, who had the pipe promptly
repaired. A month later, Chayim received a huge water bill. He argued that
he only used very little water during the two-month billing period. The
rest of the bill—which he assumed is on account of the leaked water—he
claimed is the landlord’s responsibility. The landlord responded that
the tenant is responsible for all utility bills. Who is right?


Answer

The first matter we need to clarify is to whom the
water authority (municipality, etc.) sends the water bills. If they are
addressed to the landlord, then he bears responsibility for the water
which ran to waste. Chayim will only have to pay for the water he actually
used. The undertaking by the tenant to pay utility bills only applies to
those charges which stem from actual use. One of the landlord’s
responsibilities is to ensure that the water supply to the apartment is
working properly (see Choshen Mishpot 314). In this context, he
must repair any leaks when he becomes aware of their existence. On the
other hand, the tenant is also responsible for promptly informing the
landlord of such problems. Should he fail to do so, he will be held
accountable for the consequences. In our case, it is clear that the leak
started while Chayim was away. He therefore did not report it to the
landlord immediately when it became noticeable. We nevertheless do not
consider him to be negligent since the reason for failing to do so was his
absence from the apartment. We do not expect a tenant to constantly remain
in his rented apartment in order to look after it. It is perfectly normal
for him to go away for a holiday or to visit his family. Since this was
the reason for the delay in reporting the leak, he is not responsible for
any resultant loss. This would include paying the bill for the wasted
water, as well as any damage to neighbours’ property. As far as he is
concerned, this is regarded as accidental loss. Had this event taken place
in a cold country in the middle of winter, the situation might have been
different. Since pipes tend to freeze, it is common practice for any
person vacating his home for any length of time to drain the pipes for
fear of bursting as a result of freezing. Failure to follow this procedure
could then constitute negligence on the part of the tenant. He would then
be responsible for any resultant loss.

If the bills are addressed to Chayim, then he will have
to pay the full bill. Since the water supplying authority views him as the
person who is ultimately responsible for all water flowing through the
meter, he must foot the bill. Can he demand that the landlord reimburse
him for that part of the bill which relates to the wasted water? We must
conclude that Chayim would not be entitled to a refund. The landlord was
not negligent in carrying out his responsibilities. On being informed of
the problem, he repaired the pipe without delay. Had he not repaired the
leak within a reasonable time, he would have been liable for any water
which ran to waste from that time onwards.

There is a third possibility. Sometimes the bill is
addressed to the apartment and not to any specific person. Who is then
liable for any wasted water? Rav Yitzchok Silberstein (Tuvcha Yabiu
No. 72) asks what will happen if the bill for the wasted water remains
unpaid? The supplying authority will eventually cut off the water supply
to the apartment. In that case, the tenant will have a claim against the
landlord, since a water supply is one of the basic facilities which a
landlord must provide for the tenant. The landlord therefore has to pay
the bill to prevent this happening.